Last week, an organization that promotes economic development called on Arkansas policymakers and business leaders to aggressively pursue a culture shift in how the state recruits and invests in growth opportunities.
Heartland Forward, a Bentonville think tank, delivered a 77-page economic development report Wednesday to a task force of business and community leaders that Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed to help protect businesses and promote public health during the pandemic.
Heartland's strategy outlines specific recommendations for six focus areas that can spark the state's post-pandemic economic recovery:
• Expanding broadband. One in five homes in Arkansas has no internet subscription, a problem that was aggravated during the pandemic when employees and students were forced to stay home to work and learn. High-speed access was crucial to success. The strategy calls for increased funding for the Arkansas Rural Connect program and the Arkansas High Cost Fund, both of which help subsidize broadband deployment. Internet providers should be given greater flexibility on using state funds to expand broadband rather than being restricted to certain regions determined by agencies handing out the money.
• Talent and Workforce. Arkansas needs a cohesive talent program that includes recruitment and retention and greater support for women entrepreneurs. Recruitment and retention efforts should focus on knowledge-based sectors such as data sciences, supply chain management, business services, health care, education and research and development. In addition, apprenticeship programs for adults and teens need to be expanded. To lift women, Arkansas should put in place a statewide program to provide capital, mentoring and technical assistance targeting women entrepreneurs.
• Innovation and Research. Data from 2019, the most recent available, shows Arkansas ranked last -- the worst in the nation -- in securing federal science and engineering funds. To improve, the state must match funds provided by federal programs that support small businesses. Arkansas also should devote more funding that provides early-stage risk capital to startups. Funding also should be increased for the Arkansas Research Alliance, a public-private partnership that works to improve research collaboration between industry, government and academics.
• Entrepreneurship and Small Business. Arkansas lags the nation in attracting venture capital and knowledge-intensive young firms, meaning those in the first few years of business. Researchers applauded the state for recently forming a small-business and entrepreneurial program as part of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The Heartland report pleads for a significant shift in state funding and resources here -- moving the money poured into industrial recruitment to focus on recruiting young firms. In addition, more funding should be directed to entrepreneurial support organizations in Arkansas.
• Health Care. The state has the third-highest obesity rate in the U.S., low-income families have limited access to health services and Arkansas ranks 47th for employer-provided medical insurance. On the national level, health care has been one of the fastest-growing U.S. economic sectors. The state should dedicate more funding for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, a research and health advocacy organization that promotes greater access to care and programs that mitigate health risks, among other issues. The report says the Arkansas Health & Opportunity for Me Act of 2021 should be fully implemented, which would expand medical coverage to 300,000 Arkansans.
• Supply Chains and Logistics. The sector is a strength for Arkansas, which is home to leading transportation companies that give the state a competitive advantage it should capitalize on. State employment in the sector is double the national average. Arkansas should leverage its strengths and give more attention to expanding the trucking sector. The state should conduct an assessment of job needs, especially with drivers, and encourage public-private partnerships devoted to growing small- and medium-size logistics, supply chain and transportation firms.
Arkansas has an opportunity to build for the future, the report said.
"This strategy is not intended to be a detailed economic development blueprint for Arkansas encompassing all required actions," the study said. "It will not replace existing plans, but it serves to build upon those and provide guidance on how Arkansas can adapt and capitalize on opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Arkansas has the incredible prospect to emerge out of the disruption in an advantageous position."
FREE CYBER CAMP
Looking for summer educational options and, perhaps, a future career for your child?
Take a look at the cybersecurity camp being held beginning this week for kids in seventh-12th grade. The camp is a partnership involving the Forge Institute and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and will be held at the school's Cyber Arena, which is a cybersecurity-focused lab within the computer science department.
The camp begins Monday and runs through July 23.
The free camp is an effort to bring students, educators, business and state leaders together to drive interest and long-term investment in secondary school cybersecurity education. It is funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Security Agency.
The Forge Institute is providing instructors, guest speakers and curriculum development.
"This is going to be an exciting two weeks for all of the participants," said Scott Anderson, executive director of Forge Institute. "They will have an opportunity to hear from experts in cybersecurity from across the nation and come away with more awareness of what a career in cybersecurity looks like."
More information and registration are available at eac-ualr.org/CyberGym/.
The Arkansas Tourism Department has released a series of games that enhance the travel experience while visiting sites around the state.
The partnership with Eksplor Gaming includes games promoting travel to regions and specific destinations, including interactive content and activities for the Ozarks, scenic byways in the state and the Shiloh Museum of the Ozarks and other sites.
The games include trivia contests and other online activities that can be used before visiting a site to learn more, during travels or as a test of what you learned when you get home.
Eksplor's partnership with the state began last year after the company won the governor's cup on tourism.
More information is available at arkansas.com/eksplor-games.
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